The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree – A Guide |
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The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree – A Guide

Written by Mark Bennett

Are you interested in becoming a professional artist, musician or designer? You could benefit from a postgraduate MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree.

Whereas an MA (or ‘Master of Arts’) focusses on academic theory and analysis, an MFA develops advanced performance and creative skills.

On this page you can read all about the MFA degree, including its course content, entry requirements and examination procedures.

To learn about other types of Masters degree, start with our main guide to postgraduate qualifications.

What is an MFA?

The MFA, or ‘Master of Fine Arts’, is a practice-based postgraduate degree in Arts subjects. It is a well-established qualification for work in Art, Design and other creative professions.

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
Type Practice-based / Professional
Subjects Arts
Qualification Level 7 (NQF)
Length 1-2 years
Credit Value Varies
Availability Primarily USA and UK

An MFA differs from other Masters programmes in that it is normally a final or ‘terminal’ degree. Whereas an MA or MSc can lead to PhD work, an MFA is often the highest level of formal qualification for practice-based work in the Arts and Design.

This makes the MFA a little like the MBA (Master of Business Administration). Both degrees are prestige qualifications for candidates with specific skills, experience and career goals (albeit in quite different fields!).

PhD-level qualifications are now being offered in Creative Arts subjects. However, these tend to be designed for students who wish to teach and research as part of an academic career. If you wish to practice, as an artist, musician or designer, an MFA may be a better option for you.

What are the entry requirements for an MFA?

There are two criteria for admission to an MFA: academic qualifications and practical ability.

Academic requirements

As a postgraduate Masters degree, an MFA will normally expect you to hold an appropriate undergraduate qualification. Standard academic qualifications will be fine, provided you can also demonstrate sufficient practical skills.

Any relevant subject area will be considered – you’ll normally need to gain the equivalent of a 2.1 or higher.


Practice-based undergraduate degrees such as the BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) are sometimes offered (particularly in North America). But this degree isn’t a prerequisite for an MFA.

If your practical skills are of a high enough standard, you may not need an undergraduate degree for admission to an MFA. This will be at the discretion of your university, however. Make sure you check the requirements before you apply.

Practical requirements

Unlike most academic taught or research Masters, MFAs are largely practice-based. As such, they require some existing creative skills. You’ll need to demonstrate these as part of your application.

How you do this will depend on your programme.

You might simply present a sample or portfolio of existing work. This is likely for creative writing or traditional art subjects.

Or you might be asked to give a practical presentation, performance or recitation. This is more likely for MFAs in music or drama.

Which subjects awards MFA degrees?

As you’d expect, the Master of Fine Arts is mainly offered in Creative Arts subjects. These include traditional disciplines such as:

  • Art and Design
  • Creative Writing
  • Drama
  • Fashion
  • Illustration
  • Musical Performance
  • Photography
  • Textiles

More modern additions include MFAs in technical subjects such as Film Production or Digital Design.

Which countries award MFA degrees?

Like the MBA, the MFA originated as a specialised graduate degree in the USA.

It is now a fairly common qualification in other parts of the world, with the UK in particular offering a range of MFA programmes.

MFA providers

MFA degrees are often awarded by smaller and more specialised institutions, as well as universities. They include dedicated Art Schools, Drama Colleges or Musical Conservatories. (The latter are prestigious performance and training centres – not home extensions!).

MFA degrees in the USA

The MFA is at home in the US higher education system, where Masters degrees are earned within broader programmes, at specialised graduate schools.

Studying an MFA in the USA usually means enrolling with one of these graduate schools, which may be part of a larger university or may be a separate institution.

These programmes are normally up to two years long.

MFA degrees in the UK

The past decade has seen the MFA become a common qualification at UK universities.

The degree has not yet been assigned a specific place in the UK’s National Qualifications Framework (NQF). In practice, universities present their MFA programmes as level 7 qualifications, equivalent to conventional taught or research Masters degrees.

However, the MFA is normally longer than other Masters degrees in the UK. Most programmes take two years to complete (versus one year for a taught MA or MSc).

This means that a UK MFA will require a greater commitment for a ‘Masters level’ qualification. This shouldn’t be a problem if you are studying the MFA as a final degree. If you are planning on studying a PhD after your Masters you may find that an MA makes more sense than an MFA.

MFA degrees in Europe

The MFA is less common in European countries, but some institutions are adopting it for specialised programmes. Content and length may differ from a UK or US MFA.

Where offered, an MFA will normally be positioned as a second-cycle qualification, according to the qualifications framework used within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

MFA degrees in other countries

Degrees equivalent to the Masters of Fine Arts are also offered by universities in countries whose higher education system follows a British or American model. These may differ slightly from their UK or US equivalents.

In Australia and New Zealand, for example, the MFA is often a research programme, combining practical work and independent study. Some universities also present MFA-style courses as a ‘Master of Contemporary Arts’.

The ‘other’ MFA

Some universities also offer specialised Masters in Financial Analysis. Confusingly, these degrees are sometimes also abbreviated as ‘MFA’. Needless to say, they are very different to the Master of Fine Arts!

What’s the difference between an MFA and an MA?

Their names may be similar, but there are key differences between an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) and an MA (Master of Arts).

  • The MA is an academic degree, normally delivered as a taught programme across Arts and Humanities and some Social Science subjects.
  • The MFA is a practice-based degree and is only offered in Arts subjects based on performance or creative work.

There is some potential for overlap between these qualifications. In the UK in particular, universities sometimes offer the MFA as a pathway alongside an MA programme. Students may select taught or creative units as appropriate. Or they may have the option to progress to an extended practical MFA project at the end of an MA.

This still involves some reflection on your artistic practice – defining your methods, principles and objectives. But the focus will be on what you yourself produce, rather than what you have to say about the history or cultural context of your discipline.

To put it crudely, whereas an MA involves studying the Arts, an MFA involves doing them.

Looking for a more ‘traditional’ Masters?

The MFA is ideal for people who wish to practice their art (as a professional artist, designer or musician, for example). If you’re interested in a more academic degree, with broader applications, you might be better off looking at taught or research degrees in the Arts and Humanities. If so, check out our guides to the MA and MRes.

Who should study an MFA?

The MFA is ideal if you want to work in a creative profession. You’ll receive extensive training and benefit from expert supervision and feedback as you hone your practical skills.

In addition to a respected degree qualification, you’ll also come away from your programme with a substantial portfolio of work.

The MFA is also accepted as an entry-level qualification for college teaching in Arts subjects – particularly in the USA.

But an MFA is less ideal if your interests are in more academic scholarship, or if you want a Masters with a wider range of career prospects.

Employers will recognise an MFA as a Masters degree, but its specialised nature may be harder to ‘sell’ to them. This is particularly important when you bear in mind the greater length of most MFA programmes compared to a standard MA.

Equally, you may find it harder to progress to an academic PhD with an MFA. This depends on your field and intended project, of course, but make sure you check in advance if doctoral study is part of your future plans.

What’s it like to study an MFA?

The Master of Fine Arts offers quite a unique postgraduate study experience.

As a practice-based programme, the MFA is unlike a taught or research Masters. Instead it combines elements of both, with a unique creative component.

Ultimately, you will proceed to undertake a substantial creative piece or performance.

How long is an MFA?

The length of a Master of Fine Arts degree varies. Programmes in the UK may run for one year, but many require up to two years of full-time study.

A longer UK MFA may sometimes include a year of MA study (up to, but not including, the MA dissertation). Or it may be a dedicated programme of practical work.

Programmes in the USA are likely to be one and a half to two years long.

How is an MFA organised?

MFA programmes are commonly divided into modules, delivered through lectures or seminars. This is particularly likely if your degree overlaps with a related MA programme.

These units will give you a grounding in your discipline, help you pick up key skills and provide an opportunity to discuss work with other students.

Like a research student, you’ll also spend a lot of time on supervised independent work. This will allow you to develop your skills through practice.

Your programme will normally conclude with a final creative project, drawing on the skills and expertise your MFA has developed.

This takes the place of the dissertation or thesis at the end of other Masters degrees. It will be an advanced piece of work, delivered to a professional standard.

How are MFA degrees assessed?

As you’d expect, the Master of Fine Arts is mainly assessed through practical work. Depending on your subject, this will mean putting together performances, presentations or portfolios.

These will often be accompanied by written pieces. Here you will reflect on your practice and assess its success.

If your MFA contains modules from a related MA programme you will also need to complete more conventional coursework essays for these.

Your final project will be assessed through a major performance, presentation or portfolio submission. You may also be orally examined on the planning, execution and success of this work.

How many credits is an MFA worth?

MFA programmes are recognised as Masters-level qualifications, but do not always have a strict credit value.

The greater length and focus on practical work makes it hard to fit a Master of Fine Arts to the credit systems used for taught Masters degrees such as the MA.

If your Master of Fine Arts does include organised modules, these may be given a credit weighting. If so the total value for your degree will be at least 180 UK credits (or their equivalent).

Search for a Master of Fine Arts now

The simplest way to find a Master of Fine Arts in your subject is to search our course database. Why not start looking now?

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Last updated: 16 May 2019